Your favorite uncle entertains every family gathering with the same stories.
His listeners realize they are not the same stories. The tales shift…small flourishes are added, details are lost and later denied (“Uncle, what about the cow? You mentioned the cow in the marsh last time.” “No, no – there wasn’t a cow. It was a goat. It’s always been a goat. Why would there be a cow in the marsh?”) Emotions intensify, diminish, and intensify again; the who, when and even the where are wobbly.
Is your uncle a pathological liar?
Well, he might be.
More likely, he’s a normal human being.
Memory is not a video recorder from an omniscient position. Our memories are constructed. Because it’s imperfect – and our brains want things to make sense – we fill in the blanks. There’s a little of filling-in-the-blanks in almost every memory, and in extreme cases, it is called confabulation.
Karl Bonhoeffer, German psychiatrist and father of martyred pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, coined the term. Confabulation, properly used, is the unconscious attempt to fill in the blanks in memory with made-up details, identified most with alcohol-related forms of dementia. The speaker believes it’s all true – but it’s not. Brain damage causes inevitable errors in processing and storing memories, and the brain valiantly attempts to weave a story out of scraps.
Related to confabulation is the tendency to “fill in the blanks” where there is no dementia and no logical reason to do so. People make up stories about other people, ruminate on them, discuss them with their companions. Later, when the subject comes up, the remembered imaginings are woven into whatever sparse facts were originally available. Electronic media has speeded up a process that used to require substantially more time and effort. The possibility of interrupting the downward spiral is much diminished.
A nearly harmless example: last year I moved my office from the high rise where I’d been for 19 years to two parish-based offices. My old office furniture was not needed in either location, so I gave it away to my parish, where it is apparently very popular with the youth group at their Sunday night meetings. Imagine my surprise when I heard from various sources that I had closed my practice, semi-retired, stopped working…you see the drift. People took one fact (she gave away her old couches and tables) and built a story around it (she retired). I have no idea how many referrals have not come my way due to someone’s – or several someones’ – confabulous storytelling regarding my work.
Less benign are the tendencies of unhappy people to ruminate and stir in speculations, scraps of other unhappy memories, fears and grudges, creating a new and often sinister narrative about a situation or people. This seems to be most effective when done in dyads or slightly larger groups. My observation, at least, is that the more shared memories, the more believable the confabulous concoction of “truth” that emerges from the co-rumination. Motivations are attributed with no evidence; “facts” are mutually invented and, since someone else believes or remembers the same exact thing – why, clearly, it must be true.
If this has ever happened to you, often in the context of perpetually unhappy coworkers, family members or friends, you know how useless it is to fight against the creative power of two or more brains that have mind-melded a mutual mural about…you. The only useful thing one can extract from the misery is a warning against being part of that type of dismal discussion.
Even with honorable intentions, memories shape-shift over time.
Emotion tints memories. Next time you are in a generally happy mood, pull up an old memory, perhaps a time shared with a loved one who has passed. In contentment, reflect on the events of the day and the joy you felt with that loved one. Really sink into the memory. Next time you evoke that memory, it will have shifted a bit to emphasize the joyful aspects – the smile, the warmth of heart – whereas if the same memory came up when you were sad, somehow it would be tinted. You might notice that other memories that feel the same way easily come to the surface: that’s another aspect of memory. Our memories are linked by emotional flavor, not just content. That’s why someone who is angry at you seems to have a boundless recall for every stupid and disappointing thing you have ever done.
Words also shape how memories are shaped and stored. A car comes up from behind, passes you, enters your lane and, a half-mile later, ends up in the ditch. You pull over to call 911 and see if you can be of assistance. Later you are questioned about your observations. How much did the car swerve? If asked, how much did the car fishtail…your memory will subtly adjust. The next time you recall it, the film may contain a touch more veering about.
Personal beliefs and biases enter the picture, too, and help form “memories” that are less than precise. It might be as subtle as “assuming” that someone meant something and then sliding into believing that they implied it, and subsequently taking offense by something that was unsaid as if it had been a slap. It could take the form of filling in the blank in someone’s appearance or comportment based on biases. Alternately, beliefs or entire cosmologies are attributed to someone based on scraps of “evidence” and then merrily embraced as “truth.”
It’s an interesting dilemma, encompassing the Commandments (Thou shalt not bear false witness) and Pilate’s coyly avoidant, “What is truth?” False witness, after all, is not just perjury. It comprises gossip and unnecessary tale-telling, both inevitably not the whole truth, as any elementary school teacher can attest. It’s all the ways in which we might fill in the blanks, perhaps consciously but, I suspect, as often reflexively, justifying our own emotional wallow with imagined and projected details.
Isn’t that confabulous?